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Passion of the grape

Commercial winemaking enterprises in the Rogue Valley can be traced back prior to the Civil War.

Peter Britt was perhaps the most famous of the half-dozen vintners centered in Jacksonville during the region's first wave of grape growing, which ebbed in the early 20th century before fading into Prohibition.

Although a smattering of hobby farmers planted vines after World War II, it wasn't until the 1970s the industry as we know it today took root.

Frank Wisnovsky, an engineer, traipsed globally from one major construction project to the next before making his way to Southern Oregon with his wife, daughter and three sons. Wisnovsky, facing a desk job with his firm, had asked for a year's leave instead. He packed up the family and headed west, arriving at a trailer park outside Ashland just in time for school.

He had discovered Southern Oregon during a trip to Crater Lake while working on the Astoria-Megler Bridge in the mid-1960s. A couple of years later, while working on the Bay Area Rapid Transit tunnel, Wisnovsky spent time familiarizing himself with vineyards in the Napa and Sonoma valleys.

There were a handful of vineyards in the Willamette Valley and one in Roseburg, but the Rogue Valley remained fallow, along with the Valley View name associated with Britt a century before.

Wisnovsky knew he wanted to plant grapes but was unsure of what variety would work best. In 1972, he planted six varieties — cabernet sauvignon, gewürztraminer, pinot noir, syrah (which turned out to be petite sirah) and merlot — on 12 acres in Ruch, and provided the Oregon State University Extension Service with an acre to plant 11 other varieties and hybrids. Another 14 acres were planted two years later. The first commercial vintage was a 1978 cabernet sauvignon.

"Back in those days, the main wine people drank was Mateus, a sweet rosé that came in a clay bottle," recalled Mark Wisnovsky, now the president of Valley View Winery, the family operation. "It was a sweeter, soft wine. The vast majority of people didn't drink more sophisticated wines."

Frank Wisnovsky considered gewürztraminer a likely long-term winner for the area, save for a minor detail.

"People couldn't say the name," his son said.

Still, it was gewürztraminer that Wisnovsky suggested to John Weisinger when the Texan moved to the valley in 1978. Weisinger took the advice and planted gewürztraminer in each of his first two years.

While the modern pioneers exchanged ideas, Wisnovsky broke out drawings of the winery he planned to build. But the engineer-turned-vintner didn't see its completion, dying in a drowning accident at Lost Creek Lake in 1980.

Weisinger had acquired acreage on the southeast edge of Ashland and figured the climate was perfect for growing grapes. The temperature range and consistent end of frost season were conducive to grapes.

"I felt like it was a no-brainer," Weisinger recalled.

Yet during the next decade, before Weisinger began producing commercially, locals were bemused.

"They laughed at me," he said. "You're not going to do a winery, it's crazy."

But he knew the county already had proven itself as a wine region a century earlier.

"One of the things I was trying to discover was what we could do best in our area," Weisinger said. "I didn't realize there were so many other incredible varieties. We were babes in the woods."

Those babes have since grown up, and the valley's planting, production and wineries have mushroomed. The latest Oregon Wine Census data showed there were 80 wineries in the Rogue Valley in 2014, with 3,226 planted acres that produced 8,667 tons of grapes.

The region always has attracted newcomers looking for a slower pace and, perhaps, a second career. The growth of the wine industry has attracted people from all walks of life who want to try their hand in working the land and making wine. Tasting rooms can be found in and around just about any town in the valley. 

Today's vineyards and wineries want to produce good wine, but they also want to make a profit, rarely an easy thing in the agriculture world. The challenge for the industry is to not only grow demand, but to satisfy the market, said Al Silbowitz of Grizzly Peak Winery on Nevada Street in Ashland, who had done everything from broadcasting and education to construction before relocating from Berkeley, Calif., in the late 1990s. 

"We're producing more wine than we can drink," Silbowitz said. "Some of the increase will go to the tourist trade. Otherwise, how do you get your wine sold in other areas? There is no simple solution to it. Wherever else you go, you're competing with San Francisco, the Napa Valley, Sonoma and all the rest of the California competition.

"They are barely aware of Southern Oregon, as opposed to Oregon and pinot noir. Many of the businesses are small-scale. The break-even point, if you are trying to be in a business, is a very long way out.

"When we got here in 1998, I would say there were maybe six real wineries, and now there are more than 10 times as many," Silbowitz said. "We have a whole range of artisanal foods — chocolate, beer, bread, cheese — that are taken quite seriously here. Our whole region prides itself on having a good quality of life, looking at living well and decently, and in a good way, taking care of the land."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com.

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The latest Oregon Wine Census data showed there were 80 wineries in the Rogue Valley in 2014, with 3,226 planted acres that produced 8,667 tons of grapes. Mail Tribune file photo
Valley View Winery bottles its Rogue Red wine for Costco stores. Mail Tribune file photo